A Lockdown of Literary Monsters

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The long winter lockdown months led to many pages being turned. Maybe it was the time of year, with thoughts of spring and renewal that coaxed my choice of books

All four had familiar themes; a quest for knowledge, mystery, macabre, and demons. It was a lockdown of literary monsters. Monster is too strong a word for these literary creatures. These were savages, wild men of the woods, green knights and Wodwoes. Monster [monstrum] – to remind, to warn, to tell, alerts us to anything at odds with the acceptable course of nature. Wodwo is Anglo-Saxon, from the Old English [Wuduwasa], a savage, a faun, a satyr.

Ted Hughes wrote his Wodwo in 1967. In the final eponymous poem of this third collection, Hughes explored his consciousness and environment through the mind of an indescribable animal curiosity.

What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river's edge
I enter water ....

Hughes’ Wodwo spends the rest of the poem trying to work out what he is, how he became and what is his place in the natural world.

I seem separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped
out of nothing casually I've no threads
fastening me to anything I can go anywhere
I seem to have been given the freedom
of this place what am I then?

The poem has no conclusion. Hughes ends with the line ‘I’ll go on looking‘, which he did, finding his familiar in the next book, his most visceral poetry, Crow.

With this in mind, my second literary monster rose from the pages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The Demon, Victor Frankenstein’s creation, is assembled from body parts and chemicals. Animated by a mysterious spark, he enters life eight feet tall, enormously strong but with the mind of a newborn. Abandoned by his creator, the colossus begins to fathom his place in the natural world. In trying to integrate into society, he is universally shunned. Looking in the mirror, he realizes his physical grotesqueness, an aspect that blinds society to his initially gentle, curious, kind, nature.

Monster Inc | Literary Demons
While the novel is vague about how Victor Frankenstein brings his monster alive, Mary Shelley was familiar with the animal electricity experiments of Luigi Galvani and Giovanni Aldini above | 1804 engraving © The Morgan Library & Museum

Like Hughes’s Wodwo, the pursuit of knowledge is at the heart of Frankenstein, whether it is Victor’s pursuit of the scientific spark of life or the daemon’s exploration of what he is and how he fits into society. In contrast to Hollywood’s take on The Modern Prometheus, Shelley reveals at the ice-bound conclusion, that the scientist has learned nothing from his pursuit of the savage, yet the savage has ascertained his place in the world.

The Green Knight provides the third lockdown of literary monsters in my next book, Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Faber & Faber 2009)

We know next to nothing about the author of the poem which came to be called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was probably written around 1400 and later acquired by Sir Robert Cotton, whose collections included the Lindisfarne Gospels and the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf.

Lockdown of Literary Monsters
The Green Man – a fertility symbol that can be traced back to the 2nd Century.
Image from the cover of Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man by Nina Lyon © Faber

The poem then lay dormant for 200 years, coming to light in Queen Victoria’s reign. The manuscript would fit comfortably into the average-size hand, were anyone allowed to touch it. Now it is referred to as Cotton Nero A X, and is one of the jewels in the crown of English Literature. It sits in the British Library under conditions of high security and controlled humidity.

This ferocious passage, translated from Old English, opens Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Sumwhyle wyth wormez he werrez, and with wolues als, Sumwhyle wyth wodwos, þat woned in þe knarrez, - 'Sometimes he warred with serpents, and with wolves also, sometimes with savages that dwelt in the cliffs.' 

It is New Year’s Eve in Camelot. The Samhain feast at King Arthur’s Court is interrupted by the earthy arrival of the Green Knight, in ‘fearful form appeared, framed in the door: a mountain of a man, immeasurably high, a hulk of a human from head to hips, so long and thick in his loins and his limbs I should genuinely judge him to be a half-giant.’

Monsters Inc. | Castle Hewin and Tarn Wadling
A Wodwo contemplates their future. Illustration from the book A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Image © Jim Key at Creepy Scrawlers Ltd.

But this half-giant has a mien that sets him out, not as a monster, but as a Wodwo, a Green Man. ‘Amazement seized their minds, no soul had ever seen a knight of such a kind – entirely emerald green.’

The Knight is ’embroidered as it was with butterflies and birds’ and ‘held in one hand a sprig of holly – of all the evergreens the greenest ever – and in the other hand held the mother of all axes.’

A quest is issued by this savage interloper that initiates a tale of classic medieval motifs; a quest and a beheading. The Green Knight challenges anyone ‘bold and brayn’ enough to strike a blow to his neck, only on the promise that they must travel to the Green Chapel and receive a reciprocal blow a year hence.

If any so hardy in this house holdes hymselven, 
Be so bolde in his blode, brayn in hys hed, 
I schal gif him of my gyft thys giserne rich, 
This ax, that is hevy‚ innogh, to hondele as hym lykes, 
And I schal bide the fyrst bur as bare as I sitte. [Ibid 285-289]

If Sir Gawain’s blow is sure, he won’t have to uphold his end of the bargain. The challenge is accepted and Sir Gawain beheads the callow savage.

The cleanness of the strike cleaved the spinal cord
and parted the fat and the flesh so far
that that bright steel blade took a bite from the floor.
The handsome head tumbles onto the earth
and the king's men kick it as it clatters past.
Blood gutters brightly against his green gown,
yet the man doesn't shudder or stagger or sink
but trudges towards them on those tree-trunk legs
and rummages around, reaches at their feet
and cops hold of his head and hoists it high,
and strides to his steed, snatches the bridle,
steps into the stirrup and swings into the saddle
still gripping his head by a handful of hair. [Ibid 424-436]

To the reveller’s amazement, the decapitated Knight, head in hand, mounts his green steed and departs. Enchantment is invoked, leaving Sir Gawain with the realisation he must go to his death or break his vow.

Choosing death over dishonour, Sir Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel, after resting at nearby Castle Hutton. Gawain is reprieved by virtue of his chivalric honour and The Green Knight reveals himself to be Gawain’s Hutton Castle host, Bertilak of Hautdesert.

Aiketgate and Castle Hewen

My wife & I bought our first house, Fell View Cottage, Aiketgate in March 2001. Aiketgate is a tiny hamlet perched on the crest of the ridge overlooking the Petteril Valley to the west and the Eden Valley to the east. Just behind the house, a farm track ran up onto high ground where an old Royal Observer Corp bunker sat, hollowed out of Eden sandstone. Built overground in 1954, the observers went underground in 1965, reflecting the change from aircraft spotting to recording nuclear detonations. 

Before the slabs of post-war concrete were laid, this crowning hilltop was ringed by the crenellated walls of Castle Hewen. It wasn’t long before I read numerous accounts that Castle Hewen had been proposed as the Green Knights’ dwelling and nearby Hutton-in-the-Forest as Bertilak of Hautdesert‘s Hutton Castle.

Castle Hewen

Castle Hewen also has form as the stronghold of King Hewen or Owain of Rheged, son of Urien and a descendent of Coel Hen, High King of North Britain, better known as Old King Cole.

Lockdown of Literary Monsters
OS Six-Inch Map of England & Wales Surveyed in 1861 showing Aiketgate and Castlehewings | © National Library of Scotland (https://maps.nls.uk/)

The earliest reference to a castle is ascribed to the poet and antiquary John Leland. Chaplain to King Henry VIII, Leland was entrusted with a document, ‘a moste gratius commission‘, that gave him access to all the historical records of England’s monasteries.

Between 1538 and 1543, Leland travelled between the monastic houses and recorded his observations. Prior to 1542, he was in Cumberland and writes of the ‘ruined Castle Hewen, which was probably a Mediaeval stronghold.’

William Hutchinson’s spirited account of his summer excursion to Cumberland in 1773 has a claim to be the first published guidebook on the district. He describes Castle Hewen as ‘On the crown of a lofty eminence, towards the northeast of the lake, and adjoining Aiket-gate, are the remains of a very strong building, which has consisted of several apartments, strengthened with out-works, and long extended trenches.’ He concludes:

‘The dimensions of the building are 233 feet, by 147; besides a smaller one at one corner, 49 feet square. The foundations still appear, faced with large stones of Ashler work; in some places eight feet in thickness. At what time this fortress was erected, or to whom it belonged, we find few traces in ancient authors. It is called, by the neighbouring inhabitants, Castle Hewin, and the neighbouring tenants pay to the Lord of the manor, a yearly rent, which is called Castle Hewen rent. Tradition reports it to have been one of the fortresses and strongholds of King Ewaine.’

On 1863 maps, the hill is still called Castlehewings. But what of the lake mentioned in the account, southwest of Castle Hewen?

Tarn Wadling

Lockdown of Literary Monsters
Thomas Donald’s 1774 map of Cumberland (detail) showing High Hesket and Tarn Wadling. Aiketgate is Highcotgate | © Carlisle Library

Alongside the Old Town to Armathwaite road, a shallow grassy depression is the only clue to the existence of Tarn Wadling. Once a large natural lake, this tarn of Arthurian legend remains on the OS map only in name.

It was near Tarn Wadling that the giant, Owen Caesarius, cast a spell on Arthur, that could only be broken by answering a riddle. Unable to solve the riddle, Arthur meets a wizened old hag at Tarn Wadling who supplies the answer but in return, demands to be married to one of Arthur’s knights. Sir Gawain volunteers and Arthur is given his answer.

The tarn must have been bestowed with great importance. The Gough Map is internationally renowned as one of the earliest maps to show Britain in a geographically recognizable form. Now in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, this 1375 manuscript shows only two bodies of water in the whole North West; Windermere and Tarn Wadling (The Wathelan.)

The Gough Map
Gough Map (detail), c.1400, depicting in red the Roman Wall: the walled city of Newcastle at its eastern end and, to the south (right) Durham enclosed by the meander of the River Wear © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Let Me in at Your Window

I wasn’t long into my fourth lockdown book, Wuthering Heights when I started to see in Emily Bronte’s descriptions of Heathcliff, a portrait of another monster.

Top Withens
Top Withens | Photo © Estate of Fay Godwin. Godwin’s photographs of Haworth and Top Withens from Remains of Elmet, published in 1979 with poems by Ted Hughes

Heathcliff was raised in Liverpool as an orphan. At the time of writing Wuthering Heights, Emily had lost her mother to cancer and her two eldest sisters to tuberculosis. All the main characters in the book are or will be orphaned.

Heathcliff grew up trying to find his place in life. Only at ‘The Heights’, under the high spring-line of the Yorkshire moors, does Heathcliff find a home. Like Hamlet, he begins his story in a nowhere place, with a Surname never used. He is ‘an unreclaimed creature, without refinement, without cultivation: an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone.’ A Yorkshire Frankenstein’s monster.

Emily fuses Heathcliff into the landscape and amalgamates nature around him.

‘He was there — at least a few yards further in the park; leant against an old ash tree, his hat off, and his hair soaked with the dew that had gathered on the budded branches and fell pattering around him. He had been standing a long time in that position, for I saw a pair of ousels passing and repassing scarcely three feet from him, busy in building their nest and regarding his proximity.’

With the shock of Catherine’s death, Heathcliff implores her to haunt him: “I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” Devastated by her death, and though a harbinger of dastardly deeds, the reader’s sympathies, as with Frankenstein, are with the monster.

And as Heathcliff is of the moors, so Catherine is buried under the moor, in a grave ‘dug on a green slope in a corner of the kirkyard, where the wall is so low that heath and bilberry plants have climbed over it from the moor; and peat mould almost buries it.’

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